A holiday tradition in my family is the Christmas train layout under the tree. It started with the birth of my son 20 years ago now. Each year we add to the layout. Truth be told though, it’s more about me than my son. I was a model railroader growing up and spent many hours reading, learning and doing what it takes to build and maintain a large layout. So this year I had a lot of work to do to put the rolling stock in order for another year of service.
As I began working on the pieces I started thinking about how much I learned about the mechanical and electrical fields as a young model railroad enthusiast. That is my actual workbench above and I used every one of those tools (and more) during my work on the rolling stock. The locomotives run on direct current electricity, sent to the engine’s electrical motor through the tracks. The DC current is generated from a transformer that converts household line alternating current (120v). The speed (power output) of the locomotive is controlled through a rheostat connected to the transformer that regulates the level of DC current supplied to the rails. The electrical current is converted to mechanical energy by the electric motor via the gear train, in combination with the weight of the locomotive, transferred through the wheels to the rails, to create tractive force.
I have often thought how much of the knowledge I now use as an EHS Professional has it’s roots in my model railroad hobby. Certainly real railroads run on the same principles, as well as many other electro-mechanical systems such as overhead cranes, rolling mills and robotic equipment. The knowledge of the actual how-to work (and trouble shooting) on these real-life systems is built on my hands-on learning with the small scale systems on my layout. A typical model locomotive, such as my new Christmas themed Lionel Berkshire Steam Locomotive (in the picture above), has a large number of simple and complex parts that work together to make the system operate. Modern model trains have sophisticated digital control systems which bring yet another important knowledge set that is directly transferable to the industrial world. The Berkshire loco is actually controlled via a bluetooth connection to my phone! This task level knowledge allows me to easily relate the concepts, factors and people present in the modern workplace.
Below is a picture of the real life 95 ton GE switcher in service at the metals production site I was the Senior Safety Engineer for some years back. It was one of two locos in service with the other being a 70 ton unit that was otherwise identical. I was responsible for the rail safety program at this site along with many other subjects. The plant has roughly 3 miles of internal track that includes a 3 story trestle. Based on our discussion on tractive force above, which locomotive would be used to move cars up and down the trestle? (answer in the comments) (Photo credit: Railpictures.net)
I wonder though, how did current generations of students moving into our field obtain these basic skills of mechanical and electrical systems? I hear so much about how the younger generations are not interested in these older hobbies that don’t have the same virtual and social component like today’s videogames do. Although I can tell you, I used my imagination to feel immersed in the world I created on my layout and enjoyed sharing it with many of my friends in person. There are other ways to learn about electrical and mechanical systems but I am sure my genuine interest at a young age helped me more easily transition from the academic environment, with little hands-on experience, to the real world where such skills are needed to be credible with the floor personnel you are interfacing with to create a safe environment.
As we know, there is much more to our profession that being a good mechanic or instrument tech. We need to know about areas of knowledge such as industrial hygiene, management systems, regulatory requirements, psychology, human physiology, leadership and adult education, to name a few. These areas of knowledge are not learned with a hobby while growing up. But, I believe these higher-level knowledge sets have overshadowed the need to have the base knowledge of how the workplace equipment actually works. The reality is that the hazards often exist in the electro-mechanical domain. In a 2016 report from the National Association of Environmental Managers (NAEM) report on EHS & Sustainability Career Profiles and Skills for Success, they concluded that “mastering this technical knowledge is critical to developing the competency to do the job well ” (p. 28).
It’s never too late to learn mechanical and electrical skills. As we have discussed, picking up a hobby, even as an adult, can be a great source of learning. The internet offers ways to learn mechanical and electrical knowledge at low or no cost. As you gain the knowledge, it is important to find a way to accumulate the experience of using it, and as we have discussed, a hobby is a great way to do it. The real message in this post is this: never quit learning. Having a Life Long Learner Mentality is critical in today’s increasingly flexible and dynamic global economy
A final thought on this post is that there may be hope for future generations of hobbyists. I visited a hobby shop to get some parts the other day and was well pleased with the number of young boys and girls in the shop looking at model trains, planes and cars. Many weren’t just window shopping but were actually buying parts and asking the questions of true model enthusiasts. They are going to be a generation with great potential as EHS Pros!